Saturday, May 28, 2005

An adventurous nation

Today, I took a break from a bitch of a week. Tomorrow (safe in Russia from the Working Hours Directive) I have to put in a full day at the office. So today I made an effort to distract myself from stress-inducing thoughts and took a walk. I visited the "Old English Court" - a building given by the Tsar in the 16th Century to the Muscovy Company. This was a City of London enterprise which enjoyed a monopoly of trade with Russia until it was expelled when another Tsar took exception to the way Cromwell treated monarchs.

As the "office" and warehouse of the company, the building was also the court of the English monarch in Moscow; effectively the embassy. It was the first such foreign embassy in Russia.

The story of how the Muscovy Company was formed is an interesting sidelight in Giles Milton's superb "pop" history book, "Nathaniel's Nutmeg". An English sea captain named Richard Chancellor was leading an expedition across the top of Russia to try to find a Northern passage to Asia and in particular to the Spice Islands. The expedition failed catastrophically, but the City merchants who financed it "lucked out" when Chancellor found his way to Moscow and won trading rights with the then-mysterious Russians. The building I visited was part of the deal he negotiated.

Standing in low barrel-vaulted rooms once occupied by predecessor English expats, I pondered awhile the spirit that led those men here. London was not just a three hour flight away then. Their comforts were slight. It seems they slept on the bales of hemp they bought from Russia, or near the treasure chest full of the wherewithal to buy it. They faced real hardships to make a living (not just the risk of deep vein thrombosis from too much time in economy class). In doing so they helped to equip the Royal Navy, whose ships were rigged with ropes of Russian hemp and masted with Russian trees. One of the texts on the exhibits claims that Russia played its part in the defeat of the "invincible Spanish Armada." Success has many fathers!

It's a long time since those guys built a network of trading routes around the world. The wealth England enjoys (and largely allows its government to squander) today was built by them and others like them. Brave men, perhaps a little avaricious, keen to hazard all to make their family's fortune.

What would they think of the "health and safety" culture in Britain today? A culture that prevents council pest officers leaning out of a window to clear a wasp's nest? A culture that leads police officers, their gutlessness dressed up as "procedure", to leave a woman to bleed to death?

What would they think of a shrunken people who childishly seek protection from all ills in the skirts of an all-powerful State? What would they think of millions living shamelessly on "social security" with no intention of ever working? What would they think of an English mother with three pregnant daughters under the age of 16, who blames the government's sex education curriculum?

I know what they would think. They would despise us. I have no doubt of it. They would be right.

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